Before coating the world with candy for Teenage Dream and championing “purposeful pop” for Witness, Katy Perry dubbed herself One of the Boys for the first of her many eras. That was 2008, and she stood out from fellow pop newcomers like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift with pure spunk: She was a 23-year-old Californian dressed like a pin-up girl, puckered up with cherry chapstick, and acting so brave, drink in hand.
On the back of her debut single, “I Kissed a Girl,” Perry became a pop princess, but her rise to superstardom wasn’t without controversy. A decade after the song’s debut, its complicated legacy is still being debated but, love it or hate it, it was the indisputable launchpad for one of the 21st century’s biggest-selling artists.
“The song was a bonafide hit, it was a game-changing sound for a pop artist, and it broke Katy Perry,” said Chris Anokute, a former A&R executive at Capitol Records who worked with Perry on her first two albums. “And from that point on, it was just a fucking train that you couldn’t stop.”
KATHERYN HUDSON GETS HER SHOT
Before “I Kissed a Girl,” Perry had weathered a series of stalled attempts at stardom. At 16, the doe-eyed girl then known as Katheryn Hudson — the middle child of two Pentecostal pastors — released a Christian record that reportedly sold just 200 copies. A year later, she trekked 100 miles from Santa Barbara to L.A., where the rock scene beckoned. She was signed and dropped from two major labels that unsuccessfully tried to mold her into the next Avril Lavigne, and it was around that time that Perry is widely quoted — in her 2012 concert film, Part of Me, for example — as saying, “I don’t want to be the next anybody. I just want to be the first Katy.”
Finally, in 2007, she scored a deal with Capitol Records. Anokute recalls meeting Perry as a cartoonish, confident character who was equal parts Betty Boop and Cali party girl.
“This was a girl who’d been through the ringer — who was signed and dropped, had probably done 300 writing sessions,” Anokute said. “So when we met Katy, she was like, ‘I’m here! I’m Katy fucking Perry, I’m a fucking star!’ She was so confident.”
After signing to Capitol, Perry released the EP Ur So Gay. It wasn’t a huge commercial success, but it did attract one of Perry’s biggest idols, Madonna, who called the title track one of her favorite songs in a radio interview. With that co-sign in her corner, Perry got to work on her debut album, One of the Boys. She already had a few tracks written, like eventual single “Waking Up in Vegas,” but it was a series of studio sessions with Max Martin and Dr. Luke that would birth her first two hits.
BATTLE OF THE BANGERS
Together with Martin and Luke, Perry crafted the throbbing, bi-curious “I Kissed a Girl” and the droll dis track “Hot N Cold” in quick succession. Both were stone-cold hits, and the only question was: Which would be her first single?
“The truth is, the majority of the company didn’t think ‘I Kissed a Girl’ would work. There was a lot of insecurity about it,” Anokute said. “They thought it was controversial and would never get played in the Bible Belt. At the time, [Kelly Clarkson’s] ‘Since U Been Gone‘ was one of the biggest records in the world, and ‘Hot N Cold’ had a similar tempo.”
What “Hot N Cold” didn’t have, though, was shock factor.
“‘I Kissed a Girl’ said something that made people stop,” Anokute said. “The simplicity of that driving beat, and that ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it’… that one line, either you’re in or you’re out. I’m not saying things would’ve been different if we went with ‘Hot N Cold’ first, but Katy became a breakthrough artist because ‘I Kissed a Girl’ was her first single.”
To get everyone else on board, the promotions team at Capitol started hyping the record for radio influencers like Rich Davis, the program director at Nashville’s Top 40 station, The River.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, this sounds like a smash,'” Davis said to MTV News. “It’s got tempo, a good beat, a great hook. Certainly, at that time, it was provocative lyrically.”
The River was the first radio station in the U.S. to play “I Kissed a Girl,” and the single lived on the airwaves for months afterward. Anokute recalled, “Seven weeks from launching the record, it went to No. 1 at Top 40 radio. A star was born.”
THE ONE-HIT WONDER CURSE
With “I Kissed a Girl,” Perry became the summer’s biggest breakout star. She capitalized on the popularity by joining Vans Warped Tour, where her pink guitars, flowery parasols, and polka-dotted rompers made her the odd girl out alongside punk acts like Paramore and All Time Low.
“Signing up for Warped Tour, and not having ever done a tour before… I mean, she would play for anyone who’d listen,” the singer’s close friend Markus Molinari told MTV News. “It was a different city every day, and there was no money. It wasn’t glamorous. She would do her own makeup on the bus and would try to make her shows interesting, like, ‘Should I use this prop, should I come up wearing this?’ She understood that she had to make herself memorable to keep the momentum going.”
Sustaining that momentum wasn’t just about record sales; it was essential for proving that Perry had staying power. “I Kissed a Girl” was a divisive record (more on that later), and several critics wrote the song off as “gimmicky” and dubbed her a “one-hit wonder.”
“When I saw comments like that, I wanted to fire back and be like, ‘You have no idea how hard she’s worked!'” Molinari said. “But I held back because she held back. She just worked. We were like, ‘Just wait.'”
FILMING IN THE PORN CASTLE
With the single dominating the radio, it was time to shoot a video that would play up Perry’s girl-kissing fantasy. That proved to be easier said than done for director Kinga Burza, who faced a tight budget and time constraints. With only a couple days to find a location, the crew settled on The Hollywood Castle, a mansion with a “weird, medieval vibe,” Burza told MTV News. She remembers rooms decked out in red velvet, dark wood paneling, mirrored ceilings, and, uh, “unexplained stains.” She said, “I think lots of porn had been shot there.”
Miraculously, the video was shot in one day: a tight turnaround made possible by a couple key factors. For one, Perry “nailed each take,” according to her director. And for another, the singer recruited her own friends, including a pre-fame Kesha, as her corset-wearing co-stars, giving the set a “nice family vibe,” according to Burza.
To Burza’s credit, the video was sexy without being sleazy: a line the director was adamant about toeing carefully. She wanted to capture the burlesque fantasy through a “voyeuristic lens,” hinting at “something sexy but forbidden.” “Hinting” was the key word, meaning she and Perry agreed that, yes, an on-screen kiss for a song about kissing girls would be “too obvious.”
The video premiered on Perry’s Myspace on May 16, 2008, and subsequently topped the TRL countdown and earned five VMA nominations. But while the playful video was racking up views, the song itself was at the center of a much more serious conversation.
KATY UNDER FIRE
The reaction to “I Kissed a Girl” was “polarizing,” Anokute said. “It was like, ‘Is she promoting homosexuality?’ Honestly, we must’ve come a long way in the past 10 years, because the song is cheeky and cute.”
Some in the gay community disagreed, claiming that lyrics like, “It’s not what good girls do / Not how they should behave” were demeaning. The debate was only intensified by the fact that Perry’s previous single, “Ur So Gay,” was a rant aimed at a metrosexual ex (opening lyric: “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf”).
At the time, MSNBC’s Tony Sclafani wrote, “It’s cool to make fun of gay people again. … The folks in ‘Medialand’ told us as much by relentlessly cheerleading two gay-unfriendly songs by newcomer Katy Perry.” Elsewhere, a critic for Feministing.com wrote, “Perry’s lyrics reflect the trivialization of queer female sexuality and the cultural norms which state that female sexuality exists for the pleasure of men.”
Though the single was dominating the charts — topping the Hot 100 for seven weeks straight — it was alienating certain parts of the country. Davis said, “I remember getting complaint calls when we started playing it. You have to remember, it was 2008, and people just didn’t talk about it; certainly not like today. Some people were just not ready to hear that.”
At the same time, Perry was being targeted by ultra-conservative groups. Molinari recalls seeing her face emblazoned on billboards that read “Katy Perry is going to hell,” and hearing her song being analyzed on Fox News. However, he defends the song as being “at the forefront of a movement of LGBTQ normalization.”
“I think it’s funny when people are like, ‘She’s using the gay community.’ She’s just saying her experience, and I think sharing it normalized it,” Molinari said, adding, “I’m a gay man, and being gay then was fairly new to me. I didn’t see a lot of acceptance in music and entertainment. I think for the youth, it was like, ‘Finally, someone said it! I can experiment and it’s fine.’ People related to it.”
THE DIFFERENCE A DECADE MAKES
Even now, Perry has a complicated relationship with “I Kissed a Girl.” A few months ago, she admitted “a couple of stereotypes” in the song, telling Glamour that if it were released today, she’d “probably make an edit on it.” She attributed the song’s alleged queerbaiting to being written during a less progressive time, and she has a point — problematic language aside, “I Kissed a Girl” did blaze a trail for queer inclusion in pop music. In recent memory, Demi Lovato winked at bisexuality in “Cool for the Summer,” Halsey duetted with Lauren Jauregui on the romantic “Strangers,” and Hayley Kiyoko shared her lesbian experiences on songs like “Curious.”
Last year, while accepting the National Equality Award at the Human Rights Campaign Gala, Perry addressed the long-ago controversy, saying, “I’m just a singer-songwriter. I speak my truths, and I paint my fantasies into these little bite-size pop songs. For instance, I kissed a girl and I liked it. Truth be told, I did more than that. … Honestly, I haven’t gotten all of it right, but in 2008, when that song came out, I knew I had started a conversation that a lot of the world seemed curious enough to sing along to.”
Not only that, but it launched the Katy Perry we know today: a bona fide pop titan, thanks to a string of subsequent No. 1 hits, like “Teenage Dream,” “Firework,” and “Roar.” And it all started because she kissed a girl and she liked it.